Press Release: Civil Rights Orgs Warn Against Efforts to Redefine Anti-Semitism

June 22, 2015

Contact: Liz Jackson, Palestine Legal (Oakland, CA)
510-206-8600 |

Students, faculty, and civil rights groups urge the University of California and CA legislature to drop consideration of State Department redefinition of anti-Semitism that hinders free speech

Citing fundamental values of free speech and open debate, students, faculty and civil rights groups are sounding alarm bells in response to efforts to restrict criticism of Israel on California campuses. 

Advocates for uncritical support of Israel are lobbying the UC Board of Regents and UC President Janet Napolitano to redefine anti-Semitism to include common criticism of Israeli policy. The redefinition – known as the State Department definition – brands critics of Israeli policies as anti-Semitic by blurring the important distinction between criticism of the state of Israel and bigotry against Jewish people. Napolitano has expressed support for the redefinition and said the regents will consider the issue at its July meeting.

The issue is also in front of the California legislature. This Tuesday, June 23, the State Assembly’s Higher Education Committee will consider a resolution – SCR 35 – that invokes the State Department redefinition. If SCR 35 passes through committee, it will go quickly to the floor for passage by the full Assembly. SCR 35 has already passed the California Senate.

The State Department redefinition of anti-Semitism risks violating the First Amendment if applied on California campuses. Classic forms of political speech and protest activity criticizing the Israeli government would be classified as anti-Semitic. If the UC, applying this definition, were to restrict this type of activity, it would violate fundamental educational values, including our time-honored tradition of debating controversial ideas and government policies, not to mention the constitutional rights of UC community members.

“For example, one of the many problems with the State Department redefinition is that it says ‘applying a double-standard to Israel’ is anti-Semitic. How many additional countries are students and professors required to criticize before they criticize Israel’s human rights record?” Explained Liz Jackson, an Oakland-based staff attorney with Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This standard is impossible for the UC to apply and will create a deep chilling effect on campus debate.”

Last week, legal groups wrote to the UC Regents and UC President Napolitano asking the university to drop the redefinition and stand by its educational mission to promote free inquiry on California campuses. Jewish Voice for Peace is also gathering signatures for petitions asking Napolitano to drop her support for the redefinition, and asking the State Department to stop using it.

In letters to State Senate Education Committee and the State Assembly committee, legal groups are also asking the legislators to shelve SCR 35 unless the reference to the State Department redefinition is dropped.

Attempts to intimidate and silence critics of Israel on U.S. campuses are escalating. Palestine Legal’s Liz Jackson explains, "As public opinion on U.S. campuses shifts towards supporting Palestinian human rights, Israel advocates have increasingly turned to tactics that attempt to shut down the debate altogether."

In the first four months of 2015, Palestine Legal documented 60 cases of false accusations of anti-Semitism that were in fact incidents where students or faculty criticized policies of Israel. They responded to 102 requests for legal support from campuses across the U.S., and 67 of those requests came from California.